When the Old Life is Gone
Per Petterson’s novel of personal grief, guilt and redemption is palpably authentic as release, if not renewal.
Petterson’s set-up is inventive – Arvid Jansen regains consciousness pressed against a bookstore’s closed glass door – and his writing is masterful. He hews close to a minimalist style with just enough character bubbling through to reinforce our sense of the narrator as human, in pain, and shouldering on. Arvid is flawed, not very much of the good person most of us hope for ourselves, yet he possesses the strength of the genuine loner. He is not railing against God or others. He is just afloat and fighting the drift.
Disoriented and beside himself, Arvid is buffeted by flashes of sorrow. We discover that his parents and brother are dead, killed in a ferry fire that was nearly his own fate. He is estranged from his wife and daughters, one of whom recognizes her father’s free fall and is showing signs of the girl child mothering the grown man. Arvid navigates turbulent dark emotions, confronts the paralyzing losses, climbs back to his feet and takes the first courageous steps toward resumption of life. Not his former life, for that is utterly gone, but a life to be lived.
IN THE WAKE is the novel that Petterson wrote prior to his breakout bestseller, OUT STEALING HORSES, which is a more restrained and ultimately more timeless work.